Andrew Hickey on drugs: half right

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I’ve signally failed to blog about what has become known as Alan Johnson’s Nutt Sack. The appalling way in which this government is sliding into irrelevance – and how Her Majesty’s Opposition is always only too ready to act as an echo chamber on matters when this government is truly, spectacularly wrong, is both profoundly depressing and barely qualifies as news.

I was interested to read Andrew Hickey’s take on the affair over the weekend. On one level he is certainly right: the degree by which drugs should be prescribed or not should not be lead by science but by the harm principle. It should be up to the individual concerned to decide for themselves if they want to take a narcotic and possible harm themselves in the process – that isn’t any of the state’s business to get involved.

…at least up to a point. Where I perhaps part company with Andrew (I haven’t read all his comments I must confess) is that I think science plays a very crucial role in deciding where you draw the line between an individual making a personal choice and an addict blindly reaching out for the next fix. Just as Mill conceded that an individual should not have the “freedom” to sell themselves into slavery so we must accept that someone physically dependent on a drug is not exerting self-control. To what degree an addict is capable of making rational decisions is very much a matter for scientists to resolve.

The bottom line is, science can’t give you value-free policy and ideology-led, evidence-free policy is equally pernicious. What you need are values and principles underpinning the science. Thus a liberal drugs policy would indeed start from the harm principle but it would rely on scientists to flesh out a lot of the practicalities. Yes, a truly liberal policy would probably result in most drugs being legalised but that in itself would lead to all sorts of questions. What should the legal limit for driving under the influence of cocaine be for instance? Would you go so far as to legalise crack? Do you impose a tax to pay for the externalities and if so, how do you calculate it? What should government policy be on advertising and public health information campaigns. There are plenty of things for scientists to investigate.

In his slightly sarcastic defence of Alan Johnson, Andrew is very wrong in this respect: Nutt was offering scientific advice within the confines of the government’s own legal framework. Within those restrictions he was offering perfectly sound advice and pointing out its inherent contradictions. Johnson hasn’t been simply applying his own principles but besmirching the very principles which the government has for years claimed underpins the existing classification system.

Ultimately, modern science poses a lot of uncomfortable questions about to what extent we can be said to exert free will. We need to engage with that debate not merely wrap ourselves in Victorian philosophy and hope it will go away.

One thought on “Andrew Hickey on drugs: half right

  1. Oh, I absolutely agree, which is why I said “It should have a bearing on peripheral policy matters – for example taxing drugs for the increased burden they cause to the NHS, or whether drugs should be allowed to be sold in doses large enough to be used as a poison (in much the same way we limit the amount of paracetamol that can be sold), or whether warning labels need to be placed on the packaging to ensure people using them have full information. ”

    Those things (and the ones you mention like driving under the influence) are areas where scientific advice has a part to play, and I’d agree that it also has a part to play in talking about addiction – I’m all in favour of giving addicts as much treatment as they can have.

    I just thought a lot of people were in danger of conceding a lot of ground to our opponents by letting them set the terms of the debate – everyone seemed to be accepting that it is OK for government to ban things if scientific advice says it’s naughty enough.

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